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Florida’s new restrictions on pre-registering to vote could hurt youth turnout

This week, reports surfaced of a New Smyrna Beach high school teacher becoming embroiled in possible legal problems because she preregistered high school students to vote. Unbeknownst to her, she was breaking newly enacted and controversial voting laws that make it more difficult for third parties to register voters. The Daytona News-Journal reported earlier this week:

Prepping 17-year-olds for the privileges and responsibilities of voting in a democracy is nothing new for civics teachers, but when Jill Cicciarelli organized a drive at the start of the school year to get students pre-registered, she ran afoul of Florida’s new and controversial election law.

Cicciarelli hadn’t registered with the state before beginning the registration drive. And she didn’t submit the forms to the elections office on time.

In the absence of willful fraud or someone’s voting rights being denied, it seems unlikely she would face a fine. Since the law took effect in July, the state Division of Elections has issued only warnings. No incident has been turned over to the attorney general’s office for enforcement, said Chris Cate, a spokesman with the secretary of state’s office.

Opponents of Florida’s voting laws say that Cicciarelli’s situation is an example of the effect the new laws will have on voter participation — and the youth vote, in particular.

Like other third party groups that used to register voters before the laws were enacted, some high schools might also seize the practice of registering voters altogether. Groups such as SAVE Dade in Miami stopped registering voters because of the steep fines involved.

Estelle Rogers, the director of advocacy with Project Vote, tells The Florida Independent that if high schools were to stop preregistering 16- and 17-year-olds because of the new laws, it would be a huge step back for the state. She calls Florida’s preregistration program a “great asset” to the state.

According to the group’s website, Project Vote is a “national nonpartisan, nonprofit 501(c)(3) that works to empower, educate, and mobilize low-income, minority, youth, and other marginalized and under-represented voters.” Project Vote is one of the many groups intervening in Florida’s court case seeking preclearance of the controversial voting changes passed by the legislature. The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida is also challenging the law.

Rogers says that preregistration programs “have been shown to get young people,” a demographic that is notorious for low turnout in elections, ”enthusiastic about voting.”

“Having these rules get in the way is counterproductive and wrong-headed,” she says.

According to a report on Florida’s and Hawaii’s voter preregistration programs compiled by Dr. Michael P. McDonald, an associate professor at George Mason University, “preregistration is recommended to be best implemented as a component of a broader program of student civic education and student poll worker recruitment.” The report was funded through the Pew Charitable Trust Making Voting Work Project.

The report found that Florida preregistration among 17-year-olds from 1992 to 2008 rose from 10,000 to 80,000 as the state pushed forward its preregistration program.

According to a report (.pdf) from Project Vote, young people “who preregistered were more likely to turn out to vote than those who registered after turning 18 years old.” The group also reported that “the turnout increase was highest among African-American youth.”

Another 2010 report (.pdf) from Project Vote says that “Florida county-level Supervisors of Elections have deemed current student voter registration and education programs in their counties ‘tremendously effective’ in increasing voter registration and turnout.”

That same 2010 report shows that when schools, in particular, play a big role in preregistration the program is even more effective.

According to the report:

The Miami-Dade Supervisor of Elections Office started performing school voter registration drives more than 20 years ago. In 2004, the Miami-Dade Elections office reached out to more than 20 local high schools, and these outreach efforts continue. They did this by forming a strong relationship with the Miami-Dade School Board. Due to that relationship, last year, the Miami-Dade Elections Office was able to collect roughly 12,000 new voter registration forms from high school students.

Project Vote’s 2010 report explains that young people have been severely underrepresented in the voting electorate.

According to the report:

  • As of November 2008, U.S. citizens 18- to 29-years old were registered to vote at a rate 10 percentage points lower than the general voting-eligible population.
  • In the 2008 election, U.S. citizens aged 18 to 29 turned out to vote at a rate 13 percentage points lower than the general voting-eligible population.
  • Registration and voting rates are much lower for 18-year-olds than the general voting-eligible population. In November 2008, the registration rate was 22 percentage points lower and the voting rate was 21 percentage points lower.

Rogers says that Cicciarelli’s situation “is a good example of someone getting hurt from the new law,” and it provides interesting insight into concrete impacts of it.

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., wrote a letter to Gov. Rick Scott criticizing the law.

“After this incident with the teacher, can anyone actually say we aren’t taking a step backwards in Florida when it comes to protecting one of our most fundamental rights?” Nelson asked in his letter to Scott. “I hope that you and every Floridian, regardless of political party, will stop and re-examine this controversial law.”

Read McDonald’s report on preregistration for yourself:

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